“I know you can’t judge a book by its cover, but I’ve found you can judge an album by its cover.”
My friend recently said this to me and while I kind of hate to admit it, I also have found a positive correlation between good music and aesthetically pleasing packaging. If nobody’s heard your music before, the artwork may be the difference between skipping over it or checking it out - especially in the digital age where there’s so much music available for free. Here are some tips I drafted up for creating and choosing the correct album art.
How Will You Feel Listening to It?
I recently got a thrash metal album from a ska label. No, I’m not joking - I ordered a box of albums from a label who was cutting down on inventory, and although the label was known for ska music, this record was thrash metal. And you know, I knew right away that it was a thrash metal record because the font looked like this.
Certain aesthetics — color, font, logos — give away the mood of an album, and sometimes the genre. A melancholy album may use a lot of gray and be more minimalist than an upbeat, silly record, which may include more bright colors and random props. Of course, you don’t have to play by the rules, and I will always rail against stereotypical album covers. But you should do this in a way that lets people know how they might feel while listening to the album, or at least make them curious enough to check it out.
Surprise Your Audience.
Genericism is one of the biggest plagues in music and art today, and a generic album cover will make someone not want to listen to it. Why check out something that looks exactly like something else, and therefore will probably sound generic as well? The same font, art style, and color scheme that everyone’s using doesn’t do you any favors.
That said, a surprise is good. It doesn’t have to be a huge middle finger to anyone or use nudity, but it should be distinguishing. This can mean a lot of detail or minimal detail - but it should be unique.
There’s a short documentary about Black Flag’s original artist Raymond Pettibon that talks about the shock value which brought people to the band in the 80’s, and does the same today. While their logo was simplistic and not too controversial in itself, the band’s show flyers (designed by Pettibon) were often highly offensive and surprising. Whether it was the gamit of Charles Manson profiles, or the sacrilegious art that covered “Slip It In,” the shock value worked and people all over the world know Black Flag because of it.
Simple is Safe
Complexity can be good but it’s very hard to pull off. Even though I appreciate some complex music, complex album art makes me less interested. Less is more, and it intrigues people to find what’s hiding behind the face of the album. The friend I quoted at the beginning of this article told me about buying Screeching Weasel’s BoogadaBoogadaBoogada after seeing it in a store, with no idea what it sounded like. The artwork for this album is simple and eye grabbing. The plain pink background, silly title, and signature weasel logo grabbed his attention immediately - it gave the feeling of intrigue.
This is a record I put out for a band last year and it’s gotten more attention than anything else I’ve done on my label. Yes, the band is very good and that’s why people bought or listened to the release. But I think the simplicity used was eye grabbing for many people to check it out, especially reviewers. The use of primary colors with a simple drawing of each band member (and their logo) uncolored kept the cover simple enough to understand, but aesthetically pleasing enough to want to investigate.
Photoshop is Universal
Photoshop is the universal standard for artwork in all kinds of media and I highly recommend you get it for yourself. It’s not easy off the bat, and you may need to take some classes to get the hang of it. But it’s a cheap monthly fee you can cancel whenever (as cheap as Netflix), and everyone uses it.
Every photographer I know and almost every person I know who creates art professionally uses Photoshop and or is at least able to use it when need be. It’s the best format to use when passing artwork from one person to another, for the purpose of expanding on a former piece, creating layouts, or formatting before sending off to a pressing/printing plant (all printing companies need important specifics due to the nature of their work, which Photoshop can meet).
Some day, there may be a different standard. But as for now, Photoshop is universal.
Cartoons and Comics are Always Cool (Unless You’re a Ska Band)
I love comic book-esque, cartoony album artwork. From Green Day to Sonic Youth, I’m almost always inclined to check out an album if it resembles a cartoon or a comic book. I even recently listened to a band I hate just to see if they’d gotten better due to their rad album artwork (spoiler: they still suck). As long as it’s not too cheesy, this is really a great idea. Unless, of course, you’re a ska band.
I don’t know what it is. It didn’t used to be this way. But the genericism is strong with this one. Less Than Jake’s Hello Rockview sold how many copies? Goldfinger’s first album is equally as awesome as its cover. But at this point, ska bands have gotten so cheesy, unserious, and bad that a comic book cover just highlights all of the not-to-be-taken-seriously parts of them. So if you’re in a ska band and you want to be taken seriously, stay away from cartoons and comics. Please.